Portal 1 Video Game Review By Arya Bakhsheshi
* Attention! Spoilers ahead! When I first started playing Portal, I didn’t know anything about it. It was not similar to any other FPS games and at least, you could not judge it by its cover. It was released in a bundle by Valve called “Orange box” which included Half Life 2: Episode 2, Team Fortress and this new game. I just guessed it should have a setting relevant to Half Life. So I start the game. The menu interface is pretty simple and unique, just like Half Life’s. I click on the New Game and after a couple of seconds I jump into a glassy cell with a bunch of things; a bed, a table and a radio, which is playing a happy lovely song. So far I like everything that I see and hear. This music is a perfect fit for this minimal modernist interior and industrial design. These aspects are enough to hook me so far. I think I am experiencing a work of art. In the next two hours I am just playing around with every possibility I can get with the portal gun. I am experiencing many different experiments with the entrance and exit gates. This is such a rare experience. Quantum physics meets top-notch art and design styles. I think this is a prediction of future; when this technology would be feasible for us. It exactly looks like a simulator for future. At this point, I can really tell this game has a high replay value to it, even if you know what the story is. This scientific experience is so unique and interesting that can fill minutes and even hours of your time daily.
Story This game has only two characters; Chell (Image 1), the game’s protagonist and avatar، who does not say a single word in the whole game similar to Gordon Freeman, Half Life’s protagonist, and GlaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) a creepy computer system with very high artificial intelligence which guides Chell through different test chambers with her instructions. (Image 2)
All we know about Chell and her past are some fragmented facts that GLaDOS tells us time to time. Things like that Chell was an orphan and has been adapted for many years in this facility and never had a single friend, Which later in the game feels fishy and makes Gamer/Chell suspicious to all things that GLaDOS tells her. No matter what, the protagonist has no any other choice but to obey GLaDOSâ€™s instructions to pass the test chambers one by one. From the first moment of interacting with this world, gamer feels like a test subject and prisoner. Portal takes place in a place called Aperture Science Enrichment center, a research facility with militaristic goals in which the Portal gun has been made. As you progress through the game and test chambers you gradually gather information about this research center to put all the fragmented pieces of this puzzle together. It was very interesting for me that during some web surfing on the Internet I faced the official site of this facility, which was very realistic and deceptive. It seems that the creators of Portal are not very satisfied with the hyper-realistic look of this game itself and the high impact it has on us with its story and setting and try to scare the hell out of us with these pranks with dissolving the line between fantasy and real life.
The story has two main parts. The first part is the test chambers, which feels more like a designed classic puzzle game rather than a story oriented one. You have to make your way through 19 different levels with help of the Portal gun and the things that you have learned. The levels get harder one after another. (Image 4, 5) In the final levels, which are excruciatingly hard, GLaDOS starts to tell us about a cake that will be served for us after we finish all the test chambers. Coming from GLaDOSâ€™s mouth, it does sound shifty, looks like a codename for a specific operation and makes Chell/us as gamers more suspicious to her, who tells us a lot of lies and seems that Chellâ€™s life is the least of importance for her.
During her instructions and statements in one of the initial test chambers, GLaDOS accidentally makes a Freudian slip and tells us that after finishing all the levels you will be perished, but she quickly changes her words and tells us about the cake again. In another level after that she alerts us that this current puzzle is unsolvable; please do not try to solve it. After you finish this test chamber too, she congratulates us that we could make it even with high
mental pressure and being sarcastically tormented. She knows that she is smarter enough than human that she has no worries to puzzle him mentally, manipulate and even humiliate him. In the test Chamber #16, GLaDOS tells us that because the current level is not ready, she has considered another test chamber has been used for military training purposes and there is chance of being hit by gun turrets and lethality. Here she formally and coldly apologizes for this sudden change. Like other artificial yet smart aspects of her character, she can perfectly handle human’s formal policies and etiquettes. A little bit later, during solving the puzzle of this test chamber that is getting more serious and is a matter of life and death, we see a pile of boxes covered an entrance to a place behind walls of the test site with clumsiness. We move the boxes and make our way to crawl into that space which looks like a maintenance room. It is very different than the dull and plain look of test chambers. It is dirty and chaotic, more likely to be a place for humans rather than machines. When we explore this place thoroughly, we see a heartbreaking scene; Graffiti picture and texts that look like revolutionary messages of rebels. On top of all these graffiti messages there is a trace of a black hand; the writer might want to assure us that he is a human not a machine, therefore trust him. Under this hand trace we can see a message duplicated in five lines: “The cake is a lie.” At the bottom right, you can see a graffiti picture of a machine eye, which is red and eye catchy, looks like it’s the eye of GLaDOS constantly looking at us with the surveillance cameras all over the test chambers.
From now on, we can find some signs of previous humans that were test objects as well before us. Even with her high artificial intelligence GLaDOS had not been able to fully manipulate and isolate humans. When she notices that we are getting aware of these signs, she kindly asks us to come to the actual test chamber sites and solve the puzzles. Now that we are suspicious of GLaDOS, we are seeking more of these dirty secret places to get more clues about the truth. We are constantly thinking about that phrase about the cake. We know GLaDOS is not trustworthy.
In the final chambers, GLaDOS now places us against a lot of gun turrets with high AI that are even able to talk to us, cheat us about their non-existing feelings and senses. They look and sound funny, kind and soft. Their lovely character once again brings the paradoxical relationship between mankind and machines to our mind. Each time when they are about to be destroyed, they scream with a heartbreaking childish voice or they kindly tell us “It is not your fault.”
Later on, in one of the other final test sites, we notice another one of these dirty spaces behind the walls, which is unreachable this time. We can see a dissembled gun turret corpse there and human handwritings and drawings that are describing the solution for the current puzzle step by step.
In the final level, just before we are about to finish the level, GLaDOS makes another creepy statement: “At the end of the experiment, you will be baked [rapidly] … and then there will be … [resume normal speed] cake.” She makes a lot of Freudian slips just like the humans, like she
knows that we may be suspicious of her. At the end, after we finish the final level, she formally thanks us that we have accomplished the mission and she tells us we will be burnt in a couple of seconds. But Chell is a human; she has to survive anyhow to prove that she is the fittest.
From this point to the end of the game the second part takes place. Chell/gamer has to find a way to get out of the Aperture Experimentations Center or beat the beast of dungeon; GLaDOS. We escape from the rail which leads us to the incineration stove to a dirty looking place on top of the current site that is pretty much similar to the other secret places in test chambers. Her voice and tone changes a lot after she watches us escaping from the pre-scripted destiny she has considered for us. First she gets angry and asks us furiously to come back to the stove but when she notices that we are doing our job anyway, she goes back to her kind and formal voice once again and tries to fool us with the cake story again. She tells us that she wants to celebrate our triumph on beating all the puzzles, with a cake. Now Chell/Us as gamers have to use the secret dirty places that are abandoned places in the Aperture Science center to get to GLaDOS’s hideout. We use every feasible path; air vents, powerhouses, basements But GLaDOS does not let go. It seems that she is present in every spot, even in these abandoned places. GLaDOS’s voice is now coming through the emergency speakers and has a scratchy and noisy quality that may represent her true colors. Her top to down point of view is pretty much similar to the adults who try to cheat little kids. She constantly tries to fool us with the cake story; she even tries to use sophisticated statements to puzzle us again: “I don’t think you’re going where you think you are going.” After a really hard struggle with using the portal gun properly to get to GLaDOS through the dirty secret places, Chell/Gamer finally finds GLaDOS. A computer who was claiming she is Chell’s mother and had adopted her. Chell finds her way to GLaDOS through a long corridor, which might be a metaphor of the cord between mother and child. GLaDOS is now very frightened and talks nonstop. She reminds us of the computer in the “2001: A Space Odyssey”
movie, HAL 9000. Gamer wants to beat her at any cost. Her last words are her feelings about pain and senses like coldness, very similar to HAL 9000’s finalk words. The last scene is very memorable; GlaDOS’s body starts to crack and the place trembles hardly. Everything is falling apart. The ceiling parts fall down on GLaDOS and Chell. Screen fades to white. White screen, which always is being used to represent a feeling of redemption and good ending, here is combined with this bitter but inevitable scene to give us the opportunity to think about the ending.
Character design Both of portal’s main characters are females. GLaDOS claims that she has adopted Chell and she is her stepmother. It might be reasonable to think of Chell being a female that it is because in such a period of time which humans are about to eradicate by the hand of their own products, a Female is a symbol of human reproduction and having hope about the future. Is the ending of Portal shows us destruction of everything or is it about the starting of ruling the world by humans again? In the ending scene, which is a passage for the next Portal, we see that we are finally out of aperture science laboratories and in the hands of nature again, breathing fresh air and watching the sun within the leaves of trees. Chell’s suit is orange. Its form and color reminds us of prisoner’s clothes. This metaphor completely makes sense; from the beginning, Chell is a prisoner. This color is also a representation of hope and energy. The whole environment in this facility has cold and dull colors and Chell with this suit is one the only eye catching spots there. All the details designed in the game rationally make sense. Chell’s feet have an installed part, which allows her to fall from high distances without getting injured. The technologies that we use to solve the puzzles in the chambers are all in harmony and are introduced to gamer with reasonable instructions. Scientifically and rationally, Portal does not let the criticizing audience to find flaws in details.
Environment design Just like the dual structure in the other aspects of Portal, we notice two main different type of environment in the game; test chambers and abandoned facility offices that are plain and artificially very neat and the maintenance dirty places behind walls. The first type of environment has a dull, cold, artificial and abandoned feeling without the existence of any other living creature (Image 10). Time to time, we see surveillance cameras that are staring at us with their big red eyes. You feel that there is no place there to be not watched. We see office windows on walls with matte and curly surface, which are hard to see the other side and remind us of one-way mirrors in interrogation rooms. (Image 11) We barely can notice tables, chairs and computers in the other side of the windows through them. The whole feeling is that we are always under surveillance by a higher intelligence being and we are being watched constantly.
In some levels, we see the walls made with dark metal blocks that make a suffocating claustrophobic environment much like asylum cells. Playing in these levels while being tormented by GLaDOS makes us more isolated and insecure, therefore more vulnerable in this place.
The dirty places are quite in the opposite side; rough, chaotic, expressive places with warm colors, places for humans to express their hate and feelings with a lot of graffiti and messages. Here the most dramatic moments about the truth happens for Chell/Gamer. In these environments we find that the cake is a lie, we are a test object and something is really wrong with the whole place. Finally we can find our way to GLaDOS through these very places.
Graphic design The menu graphic is the authentic, special and Valve exclusive graphic similar to the other games of this company, a moving scene in the background, which slowly blurs and the simple layout fades in. The only visual element in the game HUD is just two organic curves that together form an eclipse and is for showing the Portal gunâ€™s status; one is blue and the other one is orange which are in complete harmony with environment colors and industrial designs in the game. (Image 14)
A very outstanding part of the gameâ€™s graphic is infographic posters and pictograms on walls and grounds that have instructions about the current test chambers. These huge solid fluorescent posters are completing GLaDOS orders and the test chambers obligatory environment. (Image 15, 16, 17)
The ending titles graphic is also very surprising. It is made of notepad fonts and ASCI codes. While in the top left of the screen the lyrics is being typed for us, top right is for credits and in the bottom of screen we can see signs and symbols made by ASCI codes. In every possible way, graphic elements in Portal are designed in a surprising and creative way.
GamePlay For the best experience with the Portal gun and involving the player in the game environment with maximum tension, Portal designers has decided to make the game as a first person point of view. Therefore we cannot view Chell except the moments we can see her with the help of Portal gates. This makes her personality more mysterious and hard to clearly think about. Just like Half Life, the game world allows the player to interact with most of the objects and make an impact on a lot of things.
The ending credits music, which is the Portal’s main theme, is called “Still Alive” and is the exact music that was playing in the starting scene from the radio. This music has a mixed sad and happy feeling to it at the same time. This melody has the final impact on the gamer in the ending credits: At the end, Gamer who had a terrifying experience from the start, lets this magic and hypnotic lullaby to make his frustrated mind rest. Overall, Portal is an unforgettable masterpiece. Seldom can we find a game, which is consolidated in all of the crucial aspects and layers in its design. This game provides us a unique environment to experience while telling us a deep surprising story. It is very hard to find flaws in this game’s elements and to suggest something better for it. Because of all the mentioned qualities of this game, Portal surely has made its way to the most impactful video games of history hall of fame.